Republican News · Thursday 12 October 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Planning to reverse rural underdevelopment

Morass of agencies leave democratic deficit

There is a crisis going on behind the scenes of apparent plenty.

At the end of last month, regional funding of 3.2 billion was announced for the Border, Midlands and Western (BMW) region. The funding represents the `local part' of the 13.31 billion to be invested by the Dublin government and the EU in the BMW counties over the next six and a half years. It represents 13,793 in funding for every adult and child in the region. It looks good.

But at the same time, community groups are in crisis. Child care and Traveller programmes, pre-school, after school and youth programmes, services for the unemployed, old people's groups, and many community development projects, all of which have received funding to address social disadvantage, are facing closure until new funding comes on stream next year. Some may have to wait until May or June for renewal of their funding. Meanwhile, groups must disband, negating much of the good work already done. Skills are lost, motivation destroyed. The social costs of closure are very high indeed. The chances of securing bridging finance until new funding programmes come on stream are remote.

This immediate crisis disguises a deeper malaise at the very heart of government plans to address social disadvantage. The crisis is at the level of planning. Who decides where the funds are to go, which communities and groups are to qualify for this funding? How are the funding allocations accountable to recipients and taxpayers?

There is a veritable morass of funding agencies, of programmes to help disadvantaged communities, all with different criteria, for what projects qualify for funding under what titles. A large part of the work of any community development project has become chasing funding for that project. It is rare that any project is funded by just one agency. Most projects require someone whose full time job it is to seek funding. In fact, often more time is spent seeking funding from different sources than can be spent getting on with the job of developing the work of the project itself.

Since the introduction of the first pilot programme for rural development in 1986, there has been a significant expansion in development and other agencies. At the moment, there are many development agencies operating in rural development.

There is Teagasc, a semi-state body, whose board is appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Food, providing research, advisory and training needs. It employs 1,500 people, based at 120 different locations. There is LEADER, the main EU initiative for rural development, which has operated in Ireland since 1992 in response to the changes occurring in agriculture and declining agricultural activity and growing isolation in rural areas.

There are the Area Development Management (ADM) Partnerships, which are companies established by the government in agreement with the EU under the Community Support Framework, which are designed to combat long term unemployment and social exclusion.

There is the Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, which is an EU special support programme unique in that it is born out of the ongoing peace process, with a clear intent to bolster the process and promote reconciliation. ADM Partnerships and the Combat Poverty Agency (CPA) have jointly been responsible for 12 measures under this programme.

There is INTERREG, which recognises that there is scope for closer economic co-operation within the context of European Structural Funds for both administrations on either side of the border.

There are County Enterprise Boards, first set up in 1993 to promote small business enterprises, with 10 employees or less, and provide business information, advice and financial assistance through capital and employment grants.

All these agencies, many controlling huge funds, have helped to finance some crucial projects promoting rural development in the border regions. Nevertheless, these agencies share a common problem, which is that of crossover between different agencies with similar objectives working in the same field. The dangers of duplication and multiplying bureaucracies of endless `planners' are evident.

Already, LEADER and the Partnerships now employ more `advisers' than does Teagasc. It means endless inter-agency meetings, endless expensive plans and strategies, for different time scales, and a large body of `professionals' into which community groups, aided and advised by more `professionals', can hope to go to seek funding.

How do these agencies relate nto each other and to the democratically elected local authorities? To a large extent, they don't. They overlap. As part of local government reform, the present Dublin government published guidelines on the integration of local government and local development aimed at improving co-ordination between various local agencies. The first step was to recommend to local councillors that they should join their local ADM partnership boards.

Subsequently, the government has established the Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs) at local authority level to assist councils in the formulation, development and review of policy matters. Though SPCs are not committed in the same way as the ADM partnerships to address social disadvantage, they do make provision for involvement of community group representation on each SPC.

In 1998, the government set up a Task Force which considered how best to integrate local government with the state agencies and local development agencies, and address the problem of so many agencies all working in parallel with overlapping responsibilities. The result has been the County/City Development Boards set up this year.

The role of these boards is to prepare a strategy for Economic, Social and Cultural development by 2002, which pulls together the work of the state agencies and involves the social partners. They are to draw up a county strategy and oversee its implementation. The guidelines lay down that the CDBs are to ``Lead, reinforce, promote and guide local authority activity related to community development in its broader sense.''

But what will happen to all those plans drawn up at great expense by Partnerships and other agencies? Will they be taken on board by the CDBs, or is there to be another round of planning? ADM partnerships have compiled statistical analysis and strategic plans for the period 2000-2006. Where do the CDBs plans, which they are tasked to produce for the coming two years, fit in?

Major concerns have already been voiced about the CDBs. What is the quality of the consultation, or representation of community groups? The process of selection onto the board is far from transparent. There is duplication of roles with no clear lines of responsibility. The CDBs concentrate a great deal on power/resources in one place, but without any clear way by which ordinary communities can influence policy. In the border regions, how effective is cross border integration in the long term, if strategic planning operates largely within local county areas?

Above all, social disadvantage and exclusion have arisen because of policies which communities look to change, yet the CDBs appear to offer no way for communities to challenge or alter those very policies that have underdeveloped rural communities. One plan comes after another, but nothing assures us that the planning gets it right?

There is undoubtedly serious intent to address social disadvantage in impoverished, declining communities, and a great deal of money is earmarked to this purpose. But behind the scenes there are grave doubts that the trends which have impoverished whole areas will be reversed.

Problems of Rural Underdevelopment - The Leitrim example

In 1901, the population of Leitrim was 69,000. In 1996 it was 25,000. Three quarters of the people live outside of towns, yet 34% have no car, and public transport is virtually non-existent in many areas.

Over a quarter of the county's workforce is dependent upon agriculture. A fifth of those who farm have holdings of under 30 acres, and less than half have holdings over 50 acres. (The threshold for viability in the drystock sector is currently estimated to be at least 200 acres.)

The age pattern of the population is grossly skewed with the effect that 41% of the population are reckoned to be dependants. 29% of households consist of just one person, and 30% of men who are over 35 years live alone.

Only one in three women over 15 participates in the labour force. Almost half are engaged in home duties.

A phenomenal 41% of the population is reckoned to be early school leavers, where 34% is the national average. In 13 of the local areas, over 50% of the population have no education whatever, or only primary schooling.

This is what a century of neglect, the border, and the Common Agricultural Policy have done to Leitrim. And yet it is a county with many advantages. Leitrim is renowned for its scenic beauty, its thriving arts and cultural development, its lakes and waterways and tourist potential. For the first time in a century, the depopulation appears to be reversing with net immigration into the county.

Above all there is improved community capacity and new community facilities which have grown out of the substantial EU Structural funds investment over the past decade, which offers enormous potential for the county

Will the `planners' strangle development, or will they succeed at last in raising incomes and the quality of life in Leitrim to where it should have been? We'll see.

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